New Urbanism Does Not Promote Crime

A recent report linking New Urbanism to increased crime portrays New Urbanism inaccurately, and implies a grim world in which crime prevention is our top planning priority.

November 3, 2003, 12:00 AM PST

By Robert Steuteville

Photo: Robert SteutevillePeter Knowles' report on crime and New Urbanism entitled, "Designing Out Crime: The Cost of Policing New Urbanism", uses erroneous assumptions and jumps to false conclusions. It is based on a "study" of two developments in Britain, one supposedly New Urban in design. The community that was examined, however, does not appear to be New Urbanism. The photographs used as examples by Knowles reveal scary-looking streetscapes with inhospitable blank walls, certainly not a goal of the New Urbanism.

In a response to a query, Knowles acknowledges that "some would doubtless argue that the photographs on the web site are not an accurate reflection of New Urbanism," yet he defends the study, saying that the community "incorporates the features which we are increasingly seeing in 'New Urbanism' layouts." Knowles then reveals a serious lack of understanding of new urban principles. He equates the New Urbanism with "Radburn" layouts, which are rarely used in true New Urban communities. He adds that New Urbanism promotes pedestrian permeability but restriction of vehicular traffic, which is not true, either. An analysis that makes broad generalizations about New Urbanism based on data from a community that is not New Urban is obviously not worth the hard disk space that it occupies.

In the United States, we have not been aware of any reports of significant or elevated crime in any of the more than 200 sizable New Urban communities. On the contrary, data from public housing redevelopments using New Urban principles has been positive. One example is Diggs Town, a formerly crime-ridden public housing development in Norfolk, Virginia. A redevelopment designed by the New Urbanist firm Urban Design Associates retained the existing housing units, which consisted of rows of barracks-like townhouses on superblocks. The design techniques involved putting in through streets, giving everybody a street address and front porch, and converting the amorphous passageways and open space into either 1) restricted backyards, 2) frontyards that are clearly "owned" by a particular resident, or 3) very clearly defined parks with good surveillance. Afterwards, police calls in the 428-unit development plummeted to two or three a week from 25-30 per day, according to a follow-up analysis, "Restoring Community through Traditional Neighborhood Design: A Case Study of Diggs Town Public Housing" (PDF, 323K) published in Housing Policy Debate.

Crime has been rare in the largest and most complete "new town" to employ New Urban design. Celebration, located near Orlando, Florida, includes rear lanes throughout (which Knowles considers dangerous) and has been under construction since the beginning of 1996. It is about 50 percent built and will eventually have about 15,000 residents. Celebration's first robbery occurred more than two years after the town opened. After taking the money, the robber apologized and fled. It was such an unusual occurrence that it was reported in the New York Times.

New Urban planning techniques do not conflict with many of the goals of Secured by Design, the program advocated by Knowles. Diggs Town, for example, increased defensible space, rather than decreased it. It reduced the ratio of pedestrian to automobile permeability. The difference is that Secured by Design is a technocratic approach to community design which recognizes only one goal -- that of reducing crime -- which it pursues primarily through the technique of minimizing the possibility that a stranger would ever walk on your street.

Taking Secured by Design to its logical conclusion, everyone would live in gated, defended communities, or at least ones where outsiders would not feel welcome. The ideal world thus envisioned by Knowles would not have cities, towns, or village centers -- places that encourage the mixing of humanity and that welcome strangers to a degree. Such a world might make Knowles' job easier, but it would be a bleak place to live.

The New Urbanism is far more welcoming to law-abiding strangers. Celebration attracts hordes of visitors, but this does not make the community less safe. The redeveloped Diggs Town feels more welcoming to outsiders because there is a clear distinction between the public and private realm, a distinction that was lacking in the old modernist design. We need a larger vision for communities, one that recognizes that security is important, but it is not the only or highest goal of humanity. We need places that are walkable, diverse, and stimulating. Unless we want to isolate ourselves on cul-de-sacs, we need communities that welcome and accommodate the outside world. To provide such places is not in conflict with the goal of discouraging crime. Extensive experience with New Urban design in the United States supports that contention.

Robert Steuteville is the Editor and Publisher of New Urban News.


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